Satadru Sen on Eagles Over Bangladesh

Satadru Sen has written a very thoughtful and engaged review of Eagles over Bangladesh: The Indian Air Force in the 1971 Liberation War. His generally positive review also strikes some critical notes in it, and I’d like to respond to those. These critical points are all largely concerned with how well the book succeeds as (generally) military history and as (particularly) a history of the 1971 Liberation War for Bangladesh, and about how the narrowness of our focus in the book detracts from that task.

A couple of preliminary remarks. My co-author, PVS Jagan Mohan, and I self-consciously restricted ourselves to documenting the air operations in our book. We chose this narrow perspective for two reasons: a) to make our task manageable and b) to not obscure the treatment of the air operations. The definitive history of the Bangladesh Liberation War and especially the conflicts that preceded it might yet have to be written, but attempts have been made and we did not intend to try doing so ourselves. There has been no history attempted though of exclusively the air component of the war. (Incidentally, our book is only the first volume of an intended two-volume project; the second will cover air operations in the Western Sector; this should give you some indication of the magnitude of the task at hand.) We took our contribution to be toward filling the gap in the aviation history literature and not necessarily to contribute to the very interesting debates that surround the genesis of the Bangladesh war, its conduct, and so on.

Now, in general, air war histories and naval warfare histories are more specialized in their focus than the conventional war history. Books on the Battle of Britain, for instance, detail the air operations–the dogfights, the bombing etc–in far more detail than anything else; what they primarily focus on, which we do as well, is the operational context: the aircraft used, the decisions that led to the planning of air campaigns as they proceeded, the technical infrastructure, some detail on combat tactics and so on. We do not expect these kinds of histories to provide the kind of political histories or context that Sen finds missing. In large part, this is because, prior to the First Gulf War and the 1999 NATO Kosovo campaign air power, despite what its most enthusiastic proponents might say, has not been the primary weapon of choice in accomplishing tactical or strategic objectives; it has supported boots on the ground. Given this, it is only natural that histories of air campaigns are largely operational histories, with some strategic and planning detail provided to make sense of operations.

Now, on to Sen’s more specific critiques.

Continue reading

Against Their Will: Everywhere, All The Time, Drunk, In Packs

I thought I had said everything I wanted to about the horrible gang-rape case in Delhi, but I feel compelled to put down a few additional observations. They center on what made this case notable, and what perhaps needs a little more attention. In no particular order, here they are.

First, the Delhi rape would not have been news had it not included a violent, savage assault with an iron rod on the young woman that resulted in her death. Had she been ‘just’ raped and not suffered more than the ‘usual’ injuries that raped women suffer, the case would have been forgotten rather rapidly. The humdrum announcement of yet another rape, somewhere, sometime, would have been unlikely to have attracted much notice. Something exceptional is always needed to jolt us out of our normal somnolent response to them. Perhaps the number of rapists, perhaps twisted acts of degradation (our social media culture now provides ample opportunity for old-fashioned ‘notch on the belt’ bragging to acquire an added new dimension), perhaps dramatic acts of violence (as in this case), or perhaps the location or placement of the victim (an American raped abroad always makes more news than one raped right here, at home.)

Second, the rape became a cause célèbre because it happened in India’s capital, and because its victim was an aspirant to the better life. She had moved from ‘out there’ to ‘in here’, from a small town to the big city; she sought to go even further. She was enrolled in a professional course of education, one that promised her and the family she had left behind a better life. Sadly, had she been a resident of a village in India’s hinterland, perhaps a Dalit set on by ‘high-caste’ goons, her gang-rape would not have made the news. Or if it had, via  a small paragraph not on the front page. it would not have provoked the current reaction. (In Govind Nihalani‘s Aakrosh, the landless peasant Lahanya Bikhu, in the movie’s horrifying climax, kills his sister to ‘protect’ her from the landlord and his foremen who have already raped his wife and condemned him to jail.)

Third, there was an old familiar companion in this story of rape: alcohol, our most beloved legal drug, whose removal from the index prohibitorum ensured that no other drug would ever be legalized. From college campus to invaded town, from frat party to street alley, rape and alcohol often go hand in hand. Sometimes, it seems, there is nothing quite as dangerous as a group of young drunk men. If they aren’t picking fights with each other–possibly the safest outcome for all bystanders–their roving eyes turn elsewhere. Quite often, it’s a woman they fancy. And of course, they attack in packs; nothing quite makes men feel as brave as alcohol and the presence of other conspirators.

Last, as I noted in my previous post, the ubiquity of rape of worldwide (in space and time) should give pause to those keen to turn this into a uniquely Indian pathology. When Susan Brownmiller wrote Against Our Will, she did not subtitle it Indian Men, Indian Women and Rape in India.